Foundations

In my inaugural post, I wanted to do a deep dive into where the idea for Boost came from. Posts that follow will be briefer in nature and focus on current developments, but I think its important to lay out the foundation in depth.

Inspiration for the idea

I’ve observed the value of tutoring programs firsthand in several settings. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend a year helping to run the tutoring program at a private boarding high school in the Middle East called the King’s Academy. Additionally, I spent time at a local public school system in a teacher’s assistant capacity. For the first time in the position of a teacher rather than a student, I was able to make a number of observations, and after spending a term living with a friend working for Teach For America at a young charter school, I concluded that my observations may be relevant to schools in general. As simple as they may be, here they are:

  • One-on-one tutoring can have a huge impact on a struggling student’s success (see literature referenced later)
  • Most schools and their teachers do not have the capacity to deliver this one-on-one tailored support

To combat this, my friend’s charter school hosted volunteers on weekends to offer specialized help, but

  • Finding enough volunteers was always a struggle

Though the concepts the students needed help with were trivial for any high-school graduate (and many current high-school students) to explain, getting the turnout required to make a real difference each weekend was very difficult.

At the same time as I was observing my TFA friend champion weekend extra help sessions, I was using Khan Academy - the internet-based learning platform - to brush up on my Thermo in preparation for taking the class the following term. Comparing those two experiences, my friend’s experience struggling to staff weekend tutorials and my own using Khan Academy, I began to start thinking about how you could leverage the benefits of Khan’s internet model to solve my friend’s staffing problems. Khan’s internet model is infinitely scalable: Sal Khan and his team put in a finite amount of time and energy to create a video, and then there’s no limit on how many people in the world can watch and benefit. My friend’s solution on the other hand was not: upon identifying a number of students who needed personalized help, he then had to go out and find that number of qualified, available and motivated people to help each student on a Saturday morning – not an easy task. At the same time, I realized his model had one huge advantage compared to Khan’s: customization. The lessons provided during the Saturday tutorials were 100% customized to a student’s individual need. Looking at both solutions together, there exists a tradeoff between scalability and customization. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to give up one for the other?

The idea

Sometime over the course of that spring, the idea to use the internet to connect students to real people (as opposed to a pre-recorded Khan video) popped into my head. Such an approach would certainly allow for customized tutorials, but would it really solve the scaling problem? At first glance, it wouldn’t. N number of students would still need N number of (virtual) tutors. But what this approach does do is make it easier for a tutor to donate his time. Travel time is eliminated, geographical location is made irrelevant, and a tutor is free to work on his computer from the comfort of wherever he chooses to be.

The combination of these three factors could allow schools to tap into whole new talent pools to provide tutoring services. Volunteer-minded college students or even high-school students could donate as little as two hours a week to great effect. Individuals interested in a career in teaching could first try it out on a small scale as virtual tutors. Talented professionals working at large companies, which like to keep track of and publish the number of hours annually donated to philanthropy, could contribute an hour or two a week from their desks without interrupting their productivity.

Is it worth it?

To the team at Boost, absolutely. We've launched a small scale pilot with the Blue Mountain Union School of Wells River, VT, as well as the Ohrenberger School of West Roxbuy, MA. Though neither program is yet complete, we've seen some really promising results. Gail Nelson, our partner teacher at the Blue Mountain Union School, says her students seem more confident when asking questions and more engaged in class. Though we have no quantitative data as of yet, these qualitative observations are promising. If all continues to go well, we hope to expand our model to other college campuses and reach more schools in need. Stay tuned!

- Chris Hopkins